November 27th, 2004 AD – Fuyuki City

The noise of the three bikes racing far above the speed limit tore through the pall of silence that had fallen on Fuyuki.

It was only half past five in the afternoon : on a normal Saturday, the streets would have been bustling. The order to stay in place had been issued three hours before, but there should still have been some people outside : instead, except for the lights at the windows of the buildings, Fuyuki looked like a ghost town. The darkened skies and the announced terrorist threat explained some of it, and if someone asked Fuyuki's citizens those were the reasons they would have given.

But in truth, the reason why no one was breaking the order to stay in place was the fact that everyone, even those without the slightest modicum of supernatural acumen, knew something bad was going on. They couldn't put it into words, and hopefully they would discard it all as their brains exaggerating the threat once it was over, but they all felt the same nameless dread, compelling them to hide wherever they felt the safest.

Honestly, Shirou was surprised no one was trying to run away from the city as fast as possible, clogging the streets with cars and making the situation even more of a mess. Maybe it was because Japanese people as a whole tended to follow public instructions during times of crisis, or maybe it was because they somehow knew that, if the worse happened, there was nowhere they could go that would be safe.

Or maybe, a part of him whispered, it was because every human was connected to the leylines in some way, and the Grail didn't want any of its sacrifices to get away.

Hopefully it was one of the first two options. They already had enough on their plates without the risk of the entire population of Fuyuki somehow being influenced by the Grail's corruption.

They had left home in haste, leaving Sella and Leysritt behind to look after the house and the still unconscious Issei. The two homunculus maids had tried to come along with them, but Illya had firmly put her foot down on the matter. Their enhanced strength and resilience mattered little in a fight between Servants and Demon Pillars, and while Leysritt could apparently turn herself into a Mystic Code called the Dress of Heaven to support Illya's Magecraft, neither Shirou nor his sister were willing to sacrifice her just to gain a slight advantage.

It wasn't the choice the Magus Killer would have made, but Kiritsugu's children were determined not to walk in their father's footsteps, knowing the misery his path had led him to.

Shirou had made a quick phone call to Sisigou-san before they left, checking that he and his people had felt what was going on (which they had). There hadn't been time for a long exchange, but it was clear that the teams guarding the city weren't going to have an easy time while they went to deal with the source of the threat.

Despite clinging on to Saber for dear life as the Servant gleefully pushed the bike to its absolute limits, Shirou could still feel the growing pressure of whatever it was Kor Phaeron was doing. The best comparison he could come up with was the feeling of a storm gathering overhead. Everyone in their group could feel it, but he was the one with the broken memories to half-make sense of it.

Something was pushing against the fabric of reality, gathering power until it could break through. When that happened, the corruption within the Grail would be able to manifest in the Materium again, just like it briefly had ten years ago during the Fuyuki Fire – but this time, with the full strength of the Greater Grail behind it, the incursion would be permanent, a wound in the World that would drown it in malice.

It was clear that their estimates of how much time it would take Kor Phaeron to transform the monks he'd kidnapped had been overly optimistic. That, or Pretender had given up on transforming them all and gambled that he could finish his dark work before they stopped him.

Regardless, the race was on.

Less than five minutes after they had left the Emiya residence and ten since the anomaly had begun (their departure had been really rushed), the trio of bikes piloted by Servants with exceptional Riding Skills ground to a halt. The three Gorgon sisters materialized as they dismounted and the humans among the group stretched their limbs. If not for the low-level Reinforcement the four Masters had been using, Shirou was fairly certain it would have taken them a while to recover from the trip. The last leg of the trip had been done on dirt roads never designed for vehicles, and though the Riding Skill had let them press on regardless, the bikes would need some extensive maintenance before Shirou could hand them back to the Fujimura Group.

An illusion spell was supposed to hide the entrance and keep mundane people from stumbling into the Greater Grail's mechanisms, but it was no longer active. The opening in the cliffside was completely visible, and it radiated an aura of malevolence so thick one could taste it – blood, ashes, and the kind of fear only sanity-rending terror could cause. There was almost no wildlife around : no rodents, no insects. Only a single raven sat on a tree, watching the group's approach before flying off.

"This is definitely the place," said Rin with a grimace on her face.

Stheno sniffed in distaste, before glaring at Shirou. "Really, Master, you take us to the most awful places." "You'll have to make it up to us later," continued Euryale without missing a beat.

"I'll, but later. Right now, we don't have time to waste," declared Shirou. "Let's go."

The group of ten souls, on whom rested all hopes of Fuyuki's survival, entered the tunnel warily, keeping watch for an ambush. None came, but the further in they went, the stronger the aura of malice surrounding them grew. It was disturbingly familiar to Shirou, dredging memories both his own, from when the Fuyuki Fire had raged, and belonging to Corswain, when the Archduke had walked the surface of daemon worlds in the Eye of Terror, where reality was slave to the whims of the Dark Gods and their champions.

If he'd a choice, Shirou would never have brought anyone else here, but he didn't. His chances of defeating Kor Phaeron in his lair alone were only slightly better than his chances of convincing the rest of the group to let him go alone. All he could do was everything in his power to make sure they all made it through this alive.

We will, he told himself, keeping the thought from leaking through his link to Saber. We will all survive and make it home.

With that promise renewed, Shirou focused on his surroundings, reaching out with his senses for any sign of threat. They walked in silence, weapons at the ready, until they finally reached the end of the passage, and stopped in their tracks as they saw what laid ahead.

"What the hell ?" murmured Rin.

"This is … how ?" asked Lancer, equally shocked.

Shirou could see why they were surprised. Apart from the malevolent aura, the tunnel they had been walking through had been natural-looking, and according to the Einzbern records Illya had dug out of the pile of documents she'd brought from her castle, they should have found a vast natural cavern, which served as an antechamber of sorts to the heart of the Greater Grail further in. Instead, it had been warped by the influence of the corrupted Grail into some kind of open-aired dark temple.

Great obelisks of black stone rose at irregular intervals. After a moment of being nagged by his subconscious, Shirou realized that, seen from above, their positions formed a basic outline for a rune in the old, proscribed Colchisian dialect of the Covenant, which roughly translated to 'holy', although what the Covenant considered sacred was very different from most other, sane religions.

The cavern's roof was gone, replaced by the image of clear night sky dotted by unfamiliar constellations. The ground beneath their feet was made of pale flagstones that were actually polished human skulls – hundreds and hundreds of them.

This isn't real, Shirou told himself to fight off the growing tide of horror that threatened to engulf him at the sight of so many human remains. This is a conjuration of the Black Grail, nothing more. But if you don't get it together, then this will be the least of the evils it will unleash.

The thought was enough to push back the panic and let him focus on his surroundings. At the other side of the warped cavern was a large staircase leading up to an archway of tortured iron from which seeped a palpable aura of concentrated malice. Their goal, and the source of the disturbances afflicting Fuyuki, laid beyond that portal.

And of course, the way was guarded, as they'd known it would be.

A humanoid figure stood at the base of the stairs, showing no reaction to their arrival, even though it must have detected them (they had considered stealth, but with Kor Phaeron having had time to prepare the grounds, trying to use the same tactic as against Gilgamesh would be too dangerous). There was nearly a hundred and fifty meters between them, but they could easily see that far without problem, either thanks to Reinforcement or the benefits of a Servant body.

The figure still wore clothes, torn and dirty as they were, but its inhuman nature was obvious at a glance. Its head was shaped like a wolf's skull, but covered in snakeskin instead of fur, and there were smouldering emeralds in its eye sockets. In its clawed left hand, it held a staff of iron tipped with an eight-pointed star – the icon of Chaos Undivided. Shirou could feel the staff's power : it had to be a Mystic Code of some kind, and one created by Pretender given its appearance.

It was clearly a Demon Pillar, though less warped than Furfur or Raum had been, unless it had another form in reserve. It wasn't alone either : Shirou could hear more of them, moving in the shadows, growling and making sounds no animal created by Evolution could ever make. He couldn't get a precise count, but there were a lot of them.

"Be ready," Shirou told his companions, before stepping forward into view.

"Welcome," the visible Demon Pillar finally called out to them, its voice echoing strangely in the warped space, reaching them without difficult despite the distance still separating them. Yet it was perfectly understandable, devoid of the strange distortions that had made Furfur's own voice almost incomprehensible.

Shirou had a feeling he knew why that was. When he'd accidentally freed Kor Phaeron from the limits imposed upon him by his summoning as a Servant, the lies Pretender had used to act as Solomon had been wiped away. Now, the Demon Pillars' nature no longer needed to be masked from the World.

… Wait. Did that make sense ? He felt that it did, but was it him who understood that, or the part of him that wasn't him – that would never be him ?

No matter, he told himself. Focus on the enemy in front of you.

"We have been expecting you," the Demon Pillar continued. It gestured to their surroundings with its free hand : "Welcome to the Dark Cathedral of Armatura … or, well, a recreation of it."

Armatura. The name stirred Shirou's inherited memories. It had been the name of a world in Ultramar, a center of industry and logistical operations for the Thirteenth Legion, before Guilliman had sacrificed it along with the rest of the Five Hundred Worlds to create the Ruinstorm. Billions had been condemned to a fate worse than death on that planet alone, all in a bid to trap the Word Bearers and World Eaters that Horus had sent to capture the region when the Heresy had begun.

Had it been the world where Corswain and the others had resurrected Kor Phaeron ? He wasn't sure. There were too many pieces of the Dark Angel's past missing from his memories, and someone like the Black Cardinal could have moved freely through the Ruinstorm, after all.

"I am Amon of the Gazing Star," the Demon Pillar went on, before sketching a mocking bow. "My lord Kor Phaeron bade me to lead the defense of the sanctum while he completes his great work."

"Amon," mused Rin, eyeing their foe with a sharp gaze. "The seventh spirit of the Ars Goetia, ranked as a Grand Marquis of Hell. Raum was just a Count, so it must be even stronger."

"Indeed," replied the Demon Pillar. "That brute couldn't even kill one of you, despite its boasting … I assure you, I will do better."

"Do you really think you can stop us, wretch ?" mocked Saber, her blackened Excalibur stabbed between two of the morbid stones. "However many of your kin creep in the shadows, do you think you can stop us from reaching your master ?"

"That remains to be seen, does it not ?" Amon didn't seem fazed by Saber's mockery. "As the hour of Kor Phaeron's triumph draws near, none but the Powers themselves can see what lies ahead. The future is aflame with glorious possibilities, little king. In the end, victory or defeat, all will be as the Gods will."

"Tell me something before we begin," said Shirou, projecting a calm he didn't feel. "This body you are using : it belonged to the Head of the Animusphere, didn't it ?"

He was almost certain, based on what his Grasping of the clothes had told him, but checking couldn't hurt. Lord El-Melloi II might appreciate the confirmation, given the mess that was Clocktower politics.

Amon smiled, showing far too many teeth.

"You are correct. After your stunt at the docks, only I remain of those who were called into the flesh of the Animuspheres and their kin. And this …" It lifted its left hand, flexing its claw. "… this body used to belong to the head of that deluded bloodline. I think I can still hear what remains of his soul screaming if I focus just right."

"A Lord of the Clocktower," said Rin grimly, shaken by the casual way in which Amon had mentioned the doom that had befallen the Animusphere Head but doing her best not to show it. "If the quality of the vessel has any impact on their performance, then it's going to be a tough fight."

"A Lord ? Ah !" Amon laughed, the sound making Shirou's skin crawl. "Mortals have such amusing delusions. Marisbury Animusphere wasn't a lord. He was a fool. He glimpsed the truth of this world, but rather than confront the lie of the stars and claim the power that lies hidden beyond their veil, he turned to the Grail for answers, hoping they would be more to his liking. And we both know how that turned out, don't we, Corswain ?"

"I am not Corswain," Shirou all but growled. He was getting really tired of people (and things pretending to be people) making that mistake. Again, Amon laughed, the sound like the cries of horrified children.

"No, you are not," it conceded, somehow managing to twist its face into a knowing look. "But you were once, and you will be again. It is inevitable. Tzeentch will reclaim his wayward champion … or destroy you completely. That is also an option."

"The Great Deceiver has no authority in this world," replied Shirou, before finally triggering his Reinforcement. Shadowy wings stretched from his back, while his vision sharpened even further as the power of an Archduke's remnant coursed through his body. "And neither do you or your master."

Amon cackled. "Is that so ? Let us see !"

It raised its staff, and one of the figures huddling in the darkness leapt out, crossing the distance separating it from the intruders with inhuman speed. It was some kind of albino reptile with three sets of limbs, a long prehensile tail, and a jaw fit to bit someone in half. Four small beady eyes glared at Shirou with malign intelligence as it leapt toward him, its teeth dripping with venom. The torn remnants of a monk robe, spotted with blood and bile, still clung to its body. Amon's laughter told Shirou that it knew Shirou had realized the identity of the attacker's host.

Laugh while you can, thought Shirou – and then he moved.

Radiant Moon struck diagonally, hitting the Demon Pillar's right shoulder and emerging from the left flank. Its body froze mid-leap, all of its momentum cancelled with a brutality that would have been enough to kill a mortal man all by itself. By all rights, it should have been torn in two bloody pieces – but that would have killed the host, and Shirou had sworn he would save all the victims of Kor Phaeron he could.

And so, just as he had done subconsciously almost two years ago, he'd infused the greatsword with the same monster-slaying energies that had slain Zouken but left Sakura unharmed. Even now, he did not know for certain where such power came from : it was contained within his Reality Marble, yes, but he had no clear memory of where he or Corswain had witnessed such radiance.

He had his suspicions, of course : there were suspicious holes in Corswain's last memories of Caliban's fall, and the child whose memories had burned in the Fuyuki Fire had been close to the last location of Excalibur's radiance shining upon the World. But so long as it helped him save people, he didn't really care. After all, he'd been willing to use Corswain's power before he'd known its origins, and continued to use it after learning them : in comparison, this was nothing.

In the end, there wasn't much difference between the monstrous patriarch of the Matou family and the Demon Pillar. The creature screeched as its essence was seared by the Traced memory of light, just like Zouken had screamed. Its physical and spiritual presence was burned away, and the unconscious form of Issei's older brother fell down, slipping through the projected greatsword unharmed. Taking advantage of the sudden shock that had frozen Amon at the sight, Shirou caught the older man with his left arm before he smashed his face on the floor and swiftly lowered him down.

A quick glance of his Reinforced eyes told him that the older man was in a bad state and would need medical and thaumaturgical attention to recover, but his life wasn't in immediate danger – at least not from the backlash of his possession.

Shirou stood back up, walking to place himself between Issei's brother and the rest of their enemies. He looked straight at Amon, Radiant Moon held between them :

"Is that all you've got ? Trying to trick us into killing those we came to rescue ? I am not impressed."

Behind him, he heard Illya suppress a snort, and felt Saber's appreciation of his taunt through their link as she walked confidently to his side.

Amon's response was less calm. Its jaw opened wide as its body shook with rage, and it roared :

"Kill them all ! For Kor Phaeron and the Octed !"

At the command, more monsters emerged from the shadows. Each was a fully transformed Demon Pillar, their appearance as varied as it was hideous. They were impossible unions of human and beast seen through the eyes of the Dark Gods. Straining his Structural Grasping to the limits of what his mind could take, Shirou counted just under thirty of them. Only six of them didn't bear any trace of the monk uniform worn by all the inhabitants of the Ryuudou Temple.

They were outnumbered three to one, and Furfur and Raum had proven a single Demon Pillar could fight a Servant on equal grounds once fully transformed. Shirou was confident his allies and him could defeat them, but it would take time, and leave them wounded and exhausted in the very best case. This was likely what Kor Phaeron had been counting on : the Black Cardinal had never been shy of throwing his minions at a superior foe in the hope of weakening them before confronting them himself.

It hadn't worked on Lorgar in Varadesh, when Kor Phaeron and the Covenant had transformed the entire city into a nightmarish pit of horrors to stop the Aurelian's righteous crusade. And it wouldn't work here either, because they had planned for this scenario.

"Rin, Rider !" He called out, raising his sword to meet the oncoming horde of monsters. "Now !"

As she heard Shirou's instruction, Rider's lips stretched into a savage smile. She was going to enjoy this.

"Rider," declared her Master, her voice firm despite the horrors swarming toward them. "By the power of my Command Seal, I order you : deploy your Noble Phantasm !"

Power flooded through the Servant of the Mount as the energy of the Command Seal moved through the bond with her Master. Her Spirit Origin hummed with it, and as her legend rose to the forefront of her mind, Rider was once again faced with the doubts that had haunted her since she'd realized the unique circumstances of her summoning.

Am I real ?

Am I anything more than the dream of King Arthur ? A construct of legends slapped around a broken fragment of identity torn off by the Grail's corruption ?

Ah, but in the end, it doesn't matter, does it ?

I am me. Nothing more, nothing less.

I may be a dream, but here and now, I am alive.

I am the King of Storms, and woe to those who stand in my way.

Rider slammed her foot down, sending ivory shards flying. Answering her summon, her horse, Llamrei, emerged from her shadow, lifting her up so that she took her place atop the saddle. Under her sinister-looking armor, the mare's coat was black as midnight, and her eyes glowed like red-hot coals. She roared, the sound more fit for a lion's mouth than a horse, letting out a puff of smoke. Rider raised Gungnir up, arcs of lightning coursing across her armor and weapon. Full of the Command Seal's power, the Servant of the Mount made her declaration to the false skies above :

"Heed my will, you lost children of the World,

You wardens and hunters, bane of your fallen kin.

The hour has come, the call is sounded :

The Wild Hunt rides !"

Her Noble Phantasm activated, and figures that seemed to be made of shadow and smoke suddenly appeared out of thin air around her. There were dozens of them, all different : some walked on two legs, others on four; some were thin and elegant, others hulking and bestial. Golden fire burned where their eyes should be, and no few had more than two of them.

These were not the true riders of the Wild Hunt, of course. They were mere shadows, conjured by her power and shaped by her authority as a Servant. To call the guardians of the lost Fae away from their post would be folly, even in such dire circumstances. Rider's crusade against the Fae of Britain had already been difficult enough when it had been fought against a mere remnant of the Fair Folk's numbers : the World didn't need a massive break-out of the rest from their eternal prison.

Rider laughed as she spurred Llamrei onward, her ghostly host following in her wake in a whispering tide of grasping claws and hungry maws. Shadows they might be, but they were still Phantasmal Beasts in their own right. The Wild Hunt, after all, was an Ex-Rank Anti-Army Noble Phantasm : with enough mana to sustain it, Rider could conceivably face off against the entire military might of the modern world put together and triumph.

Of course, even the power of a Command Spell wasn't enough for that. But it was more than enough to change the direction in which the fight against the Demon Pillars was being unfair. And if there was one lesson she had learned during her military campaigns, it was that you should always do everything in your power to make every fight unfair for the enemy. Otherwise, you were a failure as a commander.

Shirou agreed with that belief full-heartedly, which was why they had prepared for this during their planning.

The two hordes smashed against each other. Human opponents would have been torn apart by the spectral Wild Hunt in seconds, but those were Demon Pillars. It would take more than fangs and claws, even those of Phantasmal Beasts, to bring them down, which was something they had been counting on. While sacrificing the monks taken prisoner was an acceptable price to pay in order to stop Kor Phaeron, it would still be a failure on their part. Rider cared little for religion, but she did care about protecting the weak. If there had been no way to save them, then she would have grimly done what was necessary and put them out of their misery, but Shirou had proven that he could sunder the man from the fiend possessing them.

At the same time, Shirou could only save the monks : the others were lost, their souls fully consumed by the Demon Pillar nesting in their corpse. That meant anyone not wearing the remnants of a monk's robe was fair game for her spear. Rider would have feared a trick of some kind, maybe a switch of tattered clothes to deceive them into killing someone they could have saved, but Shirou had assured them that wouldn't happen. Kor Phaeron couldn't conceive of anyone undoing his work, and Pretender would want them to recognize the monks so that they might know their fate and despair.

Her lover's read of their enemy had been on point, which was auspicious for their chances of victory. Rider had doubted Shirou's nature when she had first been summoned, if not his character. Possession was a nasty business, and she'd had to deal with her share of tragedies of that kind during her reign, as otherwise innocent men and women were turned into instruments of evil through no fault of their own – unless you counted being too weak to resist possession as a sin, and Rider did not. She'd feared Shirou would succumb to the darkness inherent to his strange powers, and would become a threat equal to that of the corrupt Grail.

Those doubts had been put to rest when she'd seen him defy Pretender after they'd fallen into the heretic Servant's trap. Whatever memories he'd inherited, it was clear Shirou was the only one in charge of his body. So she'd trust him with command of this battle, and put the Wild Hunt at his service.

She and her mount fought as one. Her Riding Skill didn't just make Llamrei an extension of her body, but also increased the mare's prowess far beyond what she'd been capable of in life. Regardless of her breeding and training, Llamrei had still been an ordinary horse; but this version of her was a steed worthy of the King of Storms. Her hooves smashed through carapaced skin and broke bones, and her breath carried the power of lightning. She moved with preternatural agility, dodging blows aimed at her master or taking them on her plate armor, leaving Rider free to strike with Gungnir.

They were not gentle, for the Demon Pillars were dangerous foes. Any injury short of dismemberment could be healed later, and even that would be a small price to pay for being freed from possession. It took a constant effort of will to avoid landing a killing blow, and she could feel Gungnir's displeasure at being so restrained. Still, Rider exulted in the challenge as much as in the knowledge that she wouldn't have to strike down any innocent soul caught in the Grail War this day.

Her foes' monstrous appearances blurred together in her mind as she fought. Their only common characteristic was how wrong they looked, utterly at odds with the laws of the World. The parts of their bodies that were familiar only served to make them even more repulsive. Some had exaggerated animal traits, while others flaunted their infernal nature. She parried a blow from something with the head of a three-eyed rat, before plunging Gungnir into the throat of an abomination with at least a dozen insect-like limbs protruding from its carapaced torso.

As Rider fought, her perception extended beyond her immediate surroundings. Years of experience allowed her to process all the information her various senses were sending to her brain, giving her a clear view of the entire battlefield.

Shirou stood at the center of the battle, a lodestone around which its currents turned. The Demon Pillars pushed through to get at him, and he took them all on with Saber at his side. Rider had to admit that they two of them made quite the gallant pair fighting together, though normal people would have been almost as scared of them as of their vile foes. Saber's black armor and tainted blade exuded an aura of menace she wasn't bothering to contain anymore, while Shirou … was Shirou. He hadn't needed to use the transformation that had let him fight Gilgamesh, but his wings were out, and his body was blazing with power as he cut down Demon Pillars one after the other. His first Servant picked up the people he freed from possession and carrying them to the backline's relative safety before returning to his side, the two of them moving in perfect unity.

Berserker moved through the battlefield in a barely perceptible blur, jumping from one obelisk to another and striking down with her claws as she moved (her scythe was too lethal to risk using on the possessed monks, even with a glancing blow). Pink-purple arrows fired by Archer pinned the limbs of Demon Pillars, bringing them down, while the force of Assassin's voice threw their infernal senses into disarray. Lancer had turned her weapon into a long-handled mace which she used to smash the Demon Pillars approaching the ranged fighters aside.

Rin was tossing enchanted jewels and casting curses without holding anything back, her Crest glowing with her od. Lines of Reinforcement were visible on her skin, though that was only so that she could escape if need be : only an abnormal Master like Shirou could fight the Demon Pillars in close quarters. Meanwhile, ribbons of pure darkness flowed around Sakura, serving as weapons and shields both. Her Master's sister was drawing deep on the well of power she'd accumulated through her bond with Shirou : her hair had turned white, and red lines ran on her skin. Next to her, Illyasviel was surrounded by glowing silver threads woven from her own air, her prana coursing through them to form the shape of birds that hurled themselves at the enemy throng before detonating.

Soon, bone dust filled the air as the intense battle pulverised the polished skulls beneath their feet, revealing the rough stone of the cavern floor that had been there before reality had been twisted. With their mystically-enhanced perceptions, none of the combatants let that slow them down, but it did give the fight an even more sinister quality. Between their eerie surroundings and the appearance of their foe, this whole battle looked like it was taking part in the deepest pits of the underworld.

As the battle progressed, Rider became more and more certain of their eventual victory, but it didn't reassure her. This … this was too easy. Yes, her Noble Phantasm was uniquely suited for this type of engagement, but surely Kor Phaeron had taken that possibility into account. Since the start of the War, only Medusa and Lancer had revealed their trump card. Pretender must have known one or more of the other four Servants in their group would be able to deal with his minions. According to Shirou, while Kor Phaeron was often blinded by his pride and fanatical devotion to his infernal masters, he was still cunning enough to rise as the supreme leader of a planet-spanning cult and wage war for years against a Primarch, beings whose power she still couldn't quite grasp from Shirou's stories.

So what was Pretender's game here ? Merely making them spend a Command Seal and reveal one of their Noble Phantasms was not nearly enough to justify the resources poured into defending the Dark Cathedral.

She still hadn't found a satisfactory answer when Amon finally joined the fray, making a beeline for Shirou. By this point, the last of the monks had been rescued, and the lead Demon Pillar's facade of calm and control had vanished. It roared like an enraged animal as it advanced toward Shirou.

The stars in the illusory sky pulsed with blood-red light in response to Amon's cry, bathing the battlefield in scarlet illumination. The Demon Pillar grew under that fell radiance, discarding even the mockery of a human form as its flesh tore through the ruined suit clinging to it. The stained cloth revealed a patchwork of fur, scales, and disgustingly human skin under which pulsed black veins.

When the Demon Pillar reached Shirou, the wolf-snake abomination was twice his size and that much wider as well. Its staff had grown alongside it, and it brought the weapon down with enough strength to break a stone castle's walls.

Shirou met the blow head-on, his face a mask of absolute focus that Rider thought looked almost regal – a fitting look for a warrior-monarch's consort. His blade met the descending staff, and the shock wave of the impact sent bone shards flying and shook the towering pillars around them, with the two nearest beginning to topple. At once, Rider directed her faithful steed to leap over the battlefield and kick one of them with all her strength so that it wouldn't crush the unconscious monks near it, while Berserker did the same with the other. The ground rumbled under the impacts, which sent up yet more dust.

And still, Shirou remained standing, pushing back against Amon's infernal strength. His wings were stretched wide to dissipate the Demon Pillar's force, and in the end it was Amon's staff that gave in first. The weapon broke with a scream entirely too alive, and Shirou's greatsword plunged down, arcing into Amon's chest and disembowelling it in a single strike.

There was no spray of blood, for Amon's flesh had been scorched black by the touch of Radiant Moon. The Demon Pillar looked down at its wound, mouth moving silently, then fell to its hands and knees, twitching painfully as its body broke down. With its essence no longer strong enough to enforce its continued existence, it was being rejected by Gaia and swiftly collapsing – but Rider was pleased to see that Shirou wasn't underestimating what a dying beast could do.

As Shirou raised his sword for the killing blow, Amon finally managed to speak :

"Curse you … Emiya ! Curse -"

Shirou struck, severing the Demon Pillar's neck and sending its grotesque head tumbling down to the ground. Rider smiled viciously as she watched it, along with the rest of Amon's body crumble into dust, its essence obliterated by Shirou's power. That had been beautifully done.

A few moments later, the last of the remaining Demon Pillars fell, impaled on Gungnir. Silence fell on the battlefield, broken only by the moans of the unconscious monks laying scattered across the damaged arena. Above, the false sky and its foreign constellations were gone, replaced by the same rough stone as what laid underneath the skull pavement. The riders of the Wild Hunt vanished one by one as the Noble Phantasm dissipated, its purpose fulfilled.

Rider opened her mouth to suggest they hurry up and press on (they would come back for the monks later, dealing with Kor Phaeron was more important) –

And then she froze, along with everyone else in the cavern.

Suddenly, the evil aura that had leaked through the archway had intensified tenfold. Where before it had been a malevolent breeze, now it was a crushing pressure, a howling promise of eternal damnation that lashed at the very soul of all who heard it. Rider's vision darkened, and she felt something sharp and cruel close in around her heart.

Then, shadowy wings stretched, and the pressure diminished enough for Rider to gasp. She turned to see Shirou and Saber stand between the group and the source of the aura, shielding them from it. The two of them were the only ones to have withstood the increased pressure of Kor Phaeron's ritual. Now Rider had her answer : Pretender had thrown his Demon Pillars in their way so that he'd have time for things to advance to this point.

"The pressure is too much," said Shirou. "I can bear it because of Corswain's power, and Saber because of the time she spent imprisoned, but you … Go. Take everyone outside, check the situation and do what you can to help. The two of us will deal with Kor Phaeron."

"Onii-chan …" Illyasviel called out, clearly torn.

"I mean it, Illya," he said firmly. "We can't leave them here. They are already hurt : prolonged exposure to this might kill them. Or worse."

"We get it, Shirou," said Rin, her face still pale from the shock. The Servants had recovered, but the Masters were still affected, and the monks likely wouldn't survive for long even with Shirou protecting them.

"We'll get them out. Don't you dare die, you hear me ?"

"I promise."

With Shirou covering them, they carried the unconscious monks out of the cavern. Thanks to Reinforcement, Servant muscle and a few basic telekinesis spells, they were able to carry them all in one go. As they went back up the tunnel leading outside, Rider looked back, and saw Shirou and Saber advancing together against the tide of evil energy.

Good luck, you two.

Being alone with her Master was something Saber would've enjoyed greatly under normal circumstances. These, however, were anything but normal.

After the others had safely departed, the two of them went up the steps and beneath the archway, entering a corridor that broadened as they advanced, until they couldn't see the walls on either side – just the path ahead, lit up by flaming skulls floating in the air at regular intervals. The warping of reality was even stronger than in the reconstitution of the Dark Cathedral : that area had at least pretended to be a natural space. Here, however, the darkness stretched around them without limits. If not for the steadily increasing psychic pressure, there would have been no way to tell they were going the right way.

The pressure was the same malevolent presence that had tormented her for ten years as it tried and failed to break her like it had broken that fool Gilgamesh in mere moments. She felt her Dragon Core burn hot inside her chest as it pushed back against it, just as it had back then. At the same time, she could feel it influencing her too, bringing her draconic nature to the fore. Her desire to crush Kor Phaeron and destroy the Grail once and for all was growing, as was her desire to claim Shirou completely as her own, to cement her position as his one true queen.

She kept those desire in check through sheer will : now wasn't the time for indulgence. Revenge and duty came first, then there would be plenty of time for celebration.

Master and Servant stopped at the same time. A man stood in front of them, where one moment ago there hadn't been anyone. All of his body below the head was covered in a silver and scarlet armor that resembled an exoskeleton straight out of an entomologist's nightmare. Almost every surface of it was covered in barbed thorns, and Chaotic runes burned around the joints. Despite the lack of visible mutations, the full power of a Demon Pillar radiated from him, pressing on their senses with malicious hunger. Unless Saber was mistaken, this one was even higher than Amon in their hierarchy.

But it was the exposed, human, and utterly emotionless face that had given Saber and Shirou pause. Both of them recognized it, even if Saber had only seen it a handful of times before. The man it belonged to was, after all, hard to forget.

"Hello, Suzuki-sensei," Shirou called out warily. "I'm glad to see you're still alive. By the way, Issei is fine : he made it to my home without too much trouble after the attack on the temple."

The possessed teacher didn't reply, or change his expression in any way. However, the carapace on his chest suddenly split apart, revealing a monstrous, enormous mouth filled with needle-like teeth and a black tongue.

"I am Belial," it said, "and the one you called Souichirou Kuzuki is no more."

"Well," Shirou murmured under his breath. "Fuck."

Though she held herself above such profanity, Saber had to agree with the sentiment.

Omake : The Resolve of a Teacher


"Language," suddenly barked Kuzuki. "I would expect better than that from you, Emiya. We may not be in class right now, but you should still uphold the standards expected of a student of Homurahara Academy."

There was a beat of complete stillness. Shirou and Saber stared at the teacher, who was looking back with the same severe expression that was known to instantly silence entire classrooms full of boisterous teenagers.

"Hmm, Sensei," Shirou asked tentatively, "are you … are you alright ?"

Souichirou blinked, then looked down at himself, before scoffing.

"Do I look alright ? Of course I'm not. But that's no reason for me not to do my job. Now, Emiya, hurry up and free me before the demon takes control back."

"R-right away, Sensei !"

"Wait ! Wait !" Belial babbled, panic clear in its voice. "This isn't how this is supposed to -"

Radiant Moon struck, and the Demon Pillar was silenced.

Deeper in the Greater Grail cavern, Kor Phaeron suddenly felt very annoyed without knowing why.

AN : Happy New Year, everyone !

Unfortunately, I'm afraid it won't be quite that easy, but I couldn't help myself.

My hope of finishing Prince of the Eye last year has, obviously, failed. I was busier than expected with the celebrations, and the only way I could've met that deadline would've been to really, really rush the writing and not put in the effort a story's conclusion deserves. I'm still going to finish it soon, though, so that the only alternate Warhammer 40000 timeline I've to keep in my mind is the Roboutian Heresy one.

I'm not quite satisfied with how the fight scene of this chapter ended up, but I could have spent another three months on it and probably still found stuff to change, so here we go.

We are approaching the end of the Grail War arc. Only three or four more chapters and then this part of the story will be over. But what chapters these will be, my friends !

As always, I look forward to your thoughts on this chapter and suggestions for future Omakes.

On another note, my new story, A Young Girl's Weaponization of the Mythos, has raised a lot more interest than I expected, especially on SpaceBattles. As a result, I've been working on my notes, and the initial plan of a short, six-parts story might end up ... altered somewhat. It's still going to be much shorter than my other works, though.

That's all for now. See you (hopefully) soon !

Zahariel out.